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G.K. Chesterton: Man Does Not Evolve from Barbaric to Civilized

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The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilised. ~ ch. 3, The Everlasting Man: “The Antiquity of Civilisation”

g-k-chesterton1Chesterton continues to give us a glimpse into “the creature called man,” and then into “the man called Christ.” Thus, he remains in his “sketch of the main adventure of the human race in so far as it remained heathen.” He is trying to put to rest the notion that mankind moves from a primitive, barbaric state to an “advanced” civilised one. According to Chesterton, what we find when we look at ancient ruins are not only civilisations, but perhaps civilisations “already old.” He chooses to focus on Egypt and Babylon, and then the Mediterranean world, as representative of ancient man’s civilized state.

First, Chesterton dispenses with the common myth that all primitive governments were “despotic and tyrannical.” Indeed, they may have been despotic, but all signs point rather to despotism and tyranny cropping up in more advanced societies, even “tired democracies.” He writes: “As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.” People often stand aghast at Nazi Germany, wondering how such an advanced and highly educated society could embrace such barbarism. I can’t help but think that Chesterton has gotten at something of it in his analysis here, and it is interesting to ponder what Chesterton might have thought of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, had he lived that long. At any rate, Chesterton concludes that “[i]t is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy,” for “[d]emocracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation.” This is certainly my read on what is going on in the U.S. right now.

Chesterton says that it is nothing but pretension to suppose that we can “trace everything in a consistent course from the amoeba to the anthropoid and from the anthropoid to the agnostic.” What we find instead is that barbarism and civilisation “existed side-by-side,” as they continue to do today. There are nomads today who apparently like their nomadism and desire to retain it; and there were non-nomads back then, who equally liked their stationary status. “The chronological rearrangement of” the nomad and the farmer, as though one evolved inexorably into the other, “is but a mark of that mania for progressive stages that has largely falsified history.”

Further, Chesterton seeks to put the lie to the notion that religious people are backward and primitive, always obscurantist and resisting change and “progress.” He quips: “[A] politician once told me in debate that I was resisting modern reforms exactly as some ancient priest probably resisted the discovery of wheels. I pointed out, in reply, that it was far more likely that the ancient priest made the discovery of the wheels. It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing.” Chesterton’s argument here cannot be made often enough. Modern man likes to act as if the society and technological advances upon which he lives somehow burst onto the scene through an exalted humanism released from the shackles of the superstition that is religion. All hail, Renaissance Man, for bequeathing us all that is good, or so we’re told.

It’s also interesting to note how Chesterton’s thinking here applies to our supposed understanding of Muslim terrorists, they all being “stone age,” “backward,” and jealous of our modern life. They are angry at us because our “advanced,” secular, nihilistic, technocratic societies “work.” Indeed, the West prospers, unlike the Old-Testament-like barbarian societies within Islamic fundamentalism. The claim is, as Chesterton puts it, “the vulgar assumption that terrorism can only come at the beginning and cannot come at the end” of civilisation. They “hate us” because we’re at “the end” and they are “at the beginning,” or so the trope goes. Yet I wonder how “stone aged” those men were who hijacked our airliners on 9/11. Did they believe they had to strike at us because we are civilisationally superior to them? Did they foreswear all modern accoutrements? Moreover, it is an open question whether the supposedly “tolerant, liberal, democratic, advanced” society has the virility to endure the onslaught of those more “primitive” societies of which religious fundamentalists are supposedly a part. Indeed, Chesterton ponders whether the enslavement of other human beings which is no doubt coming in the future (protestations of slavery’s extinction in “the West” notwithstanding) might be a good deal worse that the slaveries of the past.

From Egypt and Babylon, Chesterton moves on the juggernaut of the Mediterranean world, noting that “[i]f the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.” Yet the apex comes from one place in particular, which “shone like the shield of Hector, defying Asia and Africa; till the light of a new day was loosened, with the rushing of the eagles and the coming of the name; the name that came like a thunderclap when the world woke to Rome.”


Written by Michael Duenes

June 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Chesterton: The History of Prehistoric Man

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g-k-chesterton1Chesterton called this notion “the sort of unreason in which only rationalists are allowed to indulge.” See The Everlasting Man, ch. 2, “Professors and Prehistoric Men.” The difficult thing – difficult for me, at least – in writing about Chesterton is that he says so many brilliant things with great humor and wit, that all I want to do is quote him, which would amount simply to copying down each page. Merely summarizing his work won’t do, for the way he writes about things is perhaps more important than what he writes about. Nevertheless, I’ll try to pass along a few highlights from this chapter.

Chesterton continues his discussion of how anthropologist talk about “prehistoric man,” as though they had some actual historical evidence to go on. It gets rather hilarious when he skewers scientists for going on and on about the life of some prehistoric creatures, of whom we only have “one scrap of bone.” This “bone” is the scientist’s “weapon and his only weapon. He often wields it with a fanaticism far in excess of anything shown by men of science when they can collect more facts from experience and even add new facts by experiment. Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs – or that it came from them.” Here Chesterton is putting his finger on the arrogance of “scientific” claims that are based on little to no evidence. Imagine what he would say today, when the scientistic worldview is in full hubris. It does no good to say that the scientific enterprise should stick to the modest claims of which it is truly capable, for scientism’s religious fervor cannot abide such modesty, nor was it meant to. Man totalizes his religions claims. It’s the image of God within us.

Chesterton wants to know what we can deduce from the fact that prehistoric men drew reindeer. Perhaps we should deduce that they “may possibly have found it easier to draw reindeers than to draw religion.” But to conclude that such men had no religion because they drew reindeer is preposterous. Science wants to have it both ways. If the ancients drew reindeer, say the anthropologists, it proves that man was unconcerned with religion back then because he didn’t draw something more profound. Yet if the prehistoric men drew nothing, the scientist concludes that man was unconcerned with religion because he didn’t draw at all. To which Chesterton says, “The truth is that all this guesswork has nothing to do with anything. It is not half such a good parlour game as shooting arrows at a carved reindeer, for it is shooting them into the air.” Belly laugh follows.

Where is Chesterton going with all this? I think he is trying to build the case that mankind has always been unique because he has always been a spiritual being in God’s image. That is, we cannot explain the rise of religion by arguing that mankind was responding to “religious forms.” For religion to come about in man, man “needed a certain sort of mind to see that there was anything mystical about the dreams or the dead, as it needed a particular sort of mind to see that there was anything poetical about the skylark or the spring. That mind was presumably what we call the human mind, very much as it exists today.” It’s logically possible that cows and dogs could get religion someday, says Chesterton, “but all that instinct for the probable, which we call common sense, must long ago have told us that the animals are not to all appearance evolving in that sense; and that, to say the least, we are not likely to have any personal evidence of their passing from the animal experience to the human experiments.” Thus, Chesterton concludes that “a transition had occurred to which bones and stones cannot in their nature bear witness; and man became a living soul.”

Two realities confirm this for Chesterton: 1) Original sin, and 2) human families. He only begins his discussion of these in this chapter, but the uniqueness of the human family unit holds great evidentiary weight for Chesterton in seeing humankind as special and different in kind from the animals.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Darwinian Evolution Has Much Bigger Problems, as G.K. Chesterton Sees

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g-k-chesterton1This summer, my wife and I are reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and discussing each chapter as we read. The Introduction and first chapter are worth the price of the book (which, actually, can be found free online). In the Introduction, Chesterton states his aim, which is to look at the Christian faith “from outside” the western cultural accretions in which it is commonly placed, for “when we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it inside.” The “outside look” is needed because those who critique Christianity from within Christianized culture are in the worst position to critique it; not because their critiques are inexcusable or unsympathetic, but rather, because they are “not in any way scientific.” That is, “an iconoclast may be indignant; an iconoclast may be justly indignant; but an iconoclast is not impartial. And it is stark hypocrisy to pretend that nine-tenths of the higher critics and scientific evolutionists and professors of comparative religion are in the least impartial.” This is particularly true when it comes to Darwinian evolution, which Chesterton saw through more clearly than most people today, who have more historical distance from its beginnings. Chesterton remarks that the evolutionists “suggest everywhere the grey gradations of twilight, because they believe it is the twilight of the gods. I propose to maintain that whether or no it is the twilight of the gods, it is not the daylight of men.”

Yet for Chesterton, what evolution cannot surmount is the fact “that man has distanced everything else with a distance like that of astronomical spaces and a speed like that of the still thunderbolt of the light.” In other words, the argument that we descended from apes and ultimately, even less complex organisms, founders on the fact that time and chance alone simply do not produce creatures like ourselves, who are so greatly more advanced than any other being under the sun that there is no process that gradually produces us from them. We appear out of the blue, as it were.

Thus, in ch. 1, The Man in the Cave, Chesterton observes that “[n]obody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else.” In other words, in a great Chestertonism, he writes that “evolution really is mistaken for explanation. It has the fatal quality of leaving on many minds the impression that they do understand it and everything else; just as many of them live under a sort of illusion that they have read the Origin of Species.” This brings to mind the Darwinian explanation for how we developed eyes. Of course, there is not one shred of experimental evidence for the Darwinian account, otherwise we would have seen and heard it replayed ad nauseum by our scientistic popular magistrates. Rather, it’s a “just so” story that “must be true” because evolution “must be true.” All other possible explanations are branded as “religion” and therefore, “superstition” and “non-science.” Thus, even though neo-Darwinism lacks explanatory power, it simply must explain everything.

Darwin’s spell is largely cast, says Chesterton, because of its reliance on “slowness” and “gradualness” to give it explanatory authority. Chesterton acknowledges the power of this trope, but points out that “[i]t is an illogicality as well as an illusion; for slowness has really nothing to do with the question. . . The Greek witch may have turned sailors into swine with a stroke of the wand. But to see a naval gentleman of our acquaintance looking a little more like a pig every day, till he ended with four trotters and a curly tail, would not be any more soothing.” For Chesterton, and for us, the question should not be the slowness or quickness of any particular biological process, but rather, “why they go at all; and anybody who really understands that question will know that it always has been and always will be a religious question; or at any rate a philosophical or metaphysical question.”

Yes, this has always been the point; one which I have tried to make countless times here. Christians can hold to various theories about the age of the earth or the process by which we arrived at our current biological context, but what they cannot logically or rationally do it hold that a godless, Darwinian account provides any real explanation for why it happened or the driving forces behind its happening. The argument, made with various levels of sophistication, that it provided a survival advantage carries no explanatory power at all.

More specifically, however, when Chesterton gets to his discussion of “cavemen,” he claims that, first of all, we have no evidence that earlier men lived in caves, nor do we have evidence that they were nothing but brutes who clubbed their women. In reality, these so-called “cavemen” proved to be quite the artists and naturalists. Chesterton quips: “The primitive man may have taken a pleasure in beating women as well as in drawing animals; all we can say is that the drawings record the one but not the other.” Yet his larger point is this: Primitive men, no matter what else we might discover about them, did things that no child would rightly imagine an animal doing. Animals have not even “traced one significant line upon the sand,” and thus, “[i]t is a simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree.”

The appearance of mankind is a great mystery, says Chesterton. There is no scientific evidence as to the “why” or the “how.” That is, “[i]n the strictly scientific sense, we simply know nothing whatever about how it grew, or whether it grew, or what it is. There may be a broken trail of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years. Something happened; and it has all the appearance of a transaction outside time.”

This is the problem that Darwinian evolution has, and it is a main reason why I do not believe it, whatever else I may believe about our origins and history. It is also the reason why Darwinian’s go ape (heh!) when intelligent people suggest that it is false (see atheist Thomas Nagel’s recent burning at the stake for his criticism of the evolutionary religion). For as Chesterton saw, it is a religious explanation, not a scientific one, and as such, it is invested with great heft by those who need it to be true to keep their worldview in tact.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 4, 2013 at 8:29 pm